I was really rather dreading my visit to Venice. It was partly 25 year old memories of a dirty, stinking city, and partly the hordes of tourists I expected to find there. If Florence was anything to go by – the queue for the entrance to the famed Duomo stretched all the way down its longest side and beyond – it was going to be hell.
The train station concourse was completely full, as if the trains had stopped running, rather than there being an express departing every 15 minutes. The number of tourists, of which I was one, was truly astonishing. It was as if everyone in the western hemisphere was holidaying in exactly the same place at exactly the same time, while locals have fled the city until the autumn.
Head to Florence’s Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, or Uffizi and it would be difficult to disagree with locals in cities like Florence that tourism is completely out of control. I cross the Ponte Vecchio, pushing through the crowds, thinking that perhaps numbers should be limited in some way, like with a minimum daily spend as in Bhutan. It would be terrible to have to go down this route, but an alternative alludes me.
As my train arrives in the second ‘serene republic’ of my Behind the Lines journey (the first being San Marino) I count six city-scale cruise ships moored across the lagoon. Eighty-eight million visit each year. That number climbs steadily. Assuming the visits are divided evenly across the year (which they are not) that figure averages out at 240,000 people a week. Every week.
Venice is like nowhere else on earth, which is part of the problem. As I step out of its station I develop child-like giddiness. ‘I’m in Venice!’ I want to cry, even as I tread into some dog mess. ‘Look; canals and bridges and slightly wonky buildings! How wonderful!’
If the city ignites these sorts of utterances in a sometimes jaded world traveller such as myself, what would someone who had never really travelled think? That’s why I came to Venice. My great uncle, whose steps I had been retracing since Naples and before that North Africa, arrived in Venice in 1944 for a week’s R & R from his army duties. Without the help of the armed forces I could only afford a couple of days here.
Accommodated on Venice Lido, the island that protects the city was the full force of the Adriatic, it seems likely my uncle toured the lagoon. Tourism was already a set feature of the city. It seems only right to throw away my reticence and do the same, plunging into the chaos of Saint Mark’s Square as I keep an eye out for the dog mess.